The Commission on Human Rights has recently released statement on reported deaths inside the prison and detention facilities in the Philippines due to Covid-19.
Read the statement below:
Prisons and detention facilities in the Philippines are among the direst places in the country. As of March 2020, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) cites a 534% prison congestion rate, with some of the persons deprived of liberty (PDLs) being detained while awaiting trial. While, in December 2019, the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) reports a 302% congestion rate within its facilities.
With the existing poor conditions in prison populations, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has since expressed concern for the plight of PDLs as the country continues to confront the Covid-19 pandemic.
Both through CHR’s Visitorial Division – Prevention Cluster and our commitment and participation in the Interim National Preventive Mechanism, we have continued to monitor and advance recommendations to relevant agencies, such as the BJMP and BuCor, in mitigating the harm of the pandemic, including procurement of appropriate personal protective equipment by concerned offices; implementation of ‘e-dalaw’ (online visitation); conduct of online filing before courts, especially on posting bail; and other prevention initiatives, such as the establishment of isolation facilities for PDLs exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms.
CHR has also supported the evaluation of conditions in provincial, city, and municipal jails and other detention facilities in view of possible guidelines for the temporary release of qualified persons for humanitarian reasons, such as first-time offenders; those detained for non-violent, bailable offenses but who are incapable of posting bail; those with no history of jumping bail; as well as the elderly and those with existing health conditions.
As part of our sustained efforts, CHR has sent a team to the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) on 3 June 2020 to raise and inquire on the list and number of deceased PDLs; status of Covid-19 testing; reports of cadavers inside NBP; the current health personnel and facilities of BuCor; the welfare of female PDLs; and release of PDLs following Supreme Court’s circular on reduced bail and recognizance among several concerns.
BuCor Spokesperson Gabriele P. Chaclag was able to provide some responses, but the Commission still needs to coordinate with other agencies for other important concerns.
In particular, several correspondences were sent to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to request, among others, the list of PDLs confined at Site Harry and/or any other quarantine/isolation area and the list of deceased PDLs due to Covid-19. Despite the lapse of over 15 days since then, the Commission has yet to receive a response. We call out the BuCor and the DOJ for their lack of transparency and non-cooperation.
CHR has also recently received complaints from families of PDLs through our CHR NCR Office, which we commit to investigate.
In light of reported deaths of PDLs while in prisons and detention facilities, CHR calls for transparency and openness from the government in reporting the situation of PDLs in the country.
As stressed by the National Privacy Commission, “[t]he Data Privacy Act is not a cloak for denying the public’s right to know.”
Public interest in the face of alleged deaths of high-profile inmates due to Covid-19, necessitates disclosure of relevant information about their deaths—both in the interest of justice, as well as in crafting sensible ways forward in preventing further deaths in prisons and detention facilities.
We too must bear in mind the unspoken case of PDLs detained in these facilities whose welfare and rights are equally important. Cases of Covid-19 in different detention facilities continue to be a cause for concern and may be seen as an indication that protocols and initiatives must be improved to curb the spread of the virus among PDLs. The urgent need to protect the remaining community against further infection must prevail over concerns of privacy of the deceased and their families at this time.
Easily the most worrying aspect of nine apparently contemporaneous deaths from COVID-19 within the same facility is the risk of infection faced by both the community of PDLs and even the staff. Devising or improving strategies to mitigate the spread of the virus becomes all the more imperative and in this case it is crucial to understand where the existing protocols and initiatives might have failed to curb the spread of the virus.
CHR, for its part, has a Constitutional mandate to exercise visitorial powers over jails, prisons, or detention facilities. This is further supported by pertinent laws, such as the Anti-Torture Act of 2009 and the Anti-Enforced Disappearance Act of 2012, which give the Commission the authority to exercise regular, independent, unrestricted, and unannounced inspection of all places of detention and confinement. This is a mandate that should not be ignored, especially by BuCor, BJMP, as well as DOJ and the Department of the Interior and Local Government, for the sake of thousands of PDLs whose lives are at stake with the continuing risks of rampant infection.
We urge the government to respect CHR’s mandate and work with us on an array of concerns, not only by the families of PDLs, but also their own personnel in different prisons and detention facilities across the country.
CHR shall continue to pursue this issue, in persistent coordination with government, towards balancing the interest of justice and human rights.